I was at a wedding on Saturday when news of Amy Winehouse’s death first came through. Sitting at a table of more mature guests, every single one of them was aware of who she was, her history and the seemingly inevitable nature of her demise. Some of them may even have been able to name one of her songs, but that doesn’t really matter. From the moment she became tabloid property, Amy Winehouse the musician took second place to Amy Winehouse the car crash, the addict, the accident waiting to happen. It came as part of a strange weekend, that saw a happy family event tempered by the death of a neighbour, the events in Oslo and now this.
I met her just the once, when she was promoting her debut album Frank. She was 20, slightly chubby and extremely good company. She called everyone darling and we discussed her love of jazz, her friendship with Billie Piper and the fact that her mum worked in a chemists where I went to school. It was hard to see her becoming a major star at the time, not due to her lack of talent, but because she had made an album that seemed aimed at a distinctly niche market.
Frank is very much a jazz record, clearly in awe of the influences that she was keen to talk about during our interview. There were moments, however, that hinted at an artist with expanding horizons – the biting ‘Fuck Me Pumps’, the relationship gone sour tale of ‘Take The Box’ and ‘What Is It About Men’, a none too kind view of her father (the same father who later tried to launch his own music career on the back of his daughter’s success). Reviews for the album were OK but it hardly set the charts alight.
It was a shock then, when she reappeared in 2006 as a major story – both musically and personally. It’s still hard to see why Back To Black made such an impact so quickly. Winehouse was hardly a household name and nor was producer Mark Ronson, having released his own similarly performing debut album the same year as the singer. The record was solid enough, still drawing on those jazz, blues and soul roots but rounding them off for a mass market.
More of a shocking change came with Winehouse, who had been transformed from that sweet, slightly gauche young woman into a slightly unhinged caricature of herself. It was as early as November of that year that she appeared on the BBC’s Never Mind The Buzzcocks in a state, suggesting that her problems were not merely the result of her new found success.
What happened in the subsequent five years has been well documented, culminating in the events that sped around the world over the weekend. The exact details are still unclear, but most people have reached their own conclusion already. It never seemed a story that was going to end happily but the news was still something of a shock. There are the inevitable questions of who could have helped her, what more could have been done and indeed you do wonder why she was allowed, not only to book a set of European festival dates for this summer, but to go on stage in Belgrade in such a state that all subsequent dates were immediately cancelled.
Like Shane McGowan and Pete Doherty before her, it was this version of Winehouse that became the reality that everybody wanted to see to the point where her original personality was drained away. When she played Oxegen in 2008 there was no drama, no disasters and no car crash – but crucially what was left was a very dull performance. We’ll never know now if she had it in her to rediscover that initial spark, whether she could have got it together enough to emerge with a third album. The story has been written, it’s time to close the book.